An omiai conjurer of couples out of singles

by Masami Ito

Mitsuko Kai stifles a sigh as she watches her visitor, Yuko Saito, cross out one candidate after another.

“What about this one?” asks Kai.

“No, not my type,” replies Saito (not her real name) after a quick glance.

“Why not? I met him, and he was tall and attractive. Why don’t you just meet him once?” Kai suggests hopefully.

“I don’t know. . . . I’ll put him down as a maybe.”

For 14 years, 55-year-old Kai has been a nakodo (matchmaker) for the Zenkoku Nakodo Rengokai (National Matchmaking Association), and has succeeded in helping more than 300 couples to tie the knot.

The association operates in almost the same way as a traditional omiai (formal meeting with a view to arranging marriage), in which a relative, family friend or a senior work colleague usually plays the role of a nakodo and conveys the proposals to both parties.

Through the 1,000 nakodo like Kai that it employs, the association aims to give spouse-seekers the personalized services that aren’t available at computerized matchmaking agencies — as well as the vast choice offered by a large database of clients.

The Zenkoku Nakodo Rengokai sets up individual appointments between singles and the nakodo. It’s quite typical for singles like Saito to visit Kai’s home on weekends to shortlist prospective partners from the list of candidates that she’s prepared for them. Thereafter, Kai organizes the omiai meetings and, if things go well, continues to be a counselor to the couple throughout their courtship.

This particular session between Kai and Saito goes on for an hour. After looking through five or six books full of photographs and resumes of prospective partners, Saito finally shortlists a few that she is willing to meet.

“OK, why don’t you leave next Saturday open so you can meet some of them?” suggests Kai.

“I can’t. I have plans,” says Saito.

“What about Sunday then?”

“I’m busy then, too.”

Kai leans forward and starts a lecture that she’s had to run through many times before.

“Don’t you want to get married? The years go by very fast, and you’ll be old before you know it. If your mother is not going to nag you anymore, I will do so in place of her.”

According to Kai, the problems she’s having with Saito occur with most of her clients. This is because it is almost always the parents who first come to see Kai; their children follow reluctantly.

“Nearly 90 percent of my clients had to be convinced by their parents to come,” says Kai. “The singles themselves are not very keen on getting married. It is the parents who beg their children to get married.”

Once the parents have persuaded their children to visit this omiai association, Kai meets with them and finds out what kind of man or woman they’re looking for. At first, she says, they all insist they aren’t in search of the ideal person. But once they start enumerating their requirements and conditions for marriage, she says, their lists become endless.

“A 155-cm-tall female high-school graduate will typically search for and choose a man who is over 170 cm, good-looking and with a college degree and a high salary,” says Kai.

However, even though the association has more than 40,000 clients on its books, she says it is extremely unlikely that anyone will find their soul mate by setting such high standards. This is where the skills of the nakodo become essential.

“I gently tell that person to lower his or her expectations,” says Kai. “For instance, I told that 155-cm woman that she doesn’t need the man to be over 170 cm when she herself is only 155 cm — so why not lower her standards to over 165 cm? That way, she could have a much wider choice. And then I also told her that good looks do not matter in marriage.”

It’s no easy job persuading single people to pare down their expectations. In fact, it almost seems as if all the dirty work is relegated to the nakodo. Once the man and the woman have been introduced to each other, it is the nakodo’s responsibility to stay informed of everything that transpires between them. Though this might seem an invasion of the couple’s privacy, it also gives them a convenient way out of awkward situations. By having the nakodo stand in the middle, it is easier for the man or the woman to turn down a marriage proposal. All they have to do is tell the nakodo that they don’t want to pursue the relationship anymore — and the nakodo will take care of the rest.

“In this job, you have to like taking care of others,” says Kai. “In a way, I think the job of a nakodo is very similar to that of a doctor.”

Indeed, the path up the aisle to the altar rarely runs smoothly — for both the couple and for the nakodo.

One time, she recalls, a couple in troduced by her decided to get engaged. Perhaps feeling he’d all but landed his fish, the man then told his fiancee that he wore a wig — at which point she dumped him . . . not because he hadn’t been truthful, but because she didn’t want a balding husband.

Kai’s advice to this poor man? She told him to get hair implants instead of a wig. Her suggestion paid off, and it wasn’t long before he met another woman through the association . . . and they’ve been happily married ever since.

Another time, the woman fell in love with the man, but he was involved in a new religion. She was desperate for him to cut off all ties with the cult, and approached Kai for help. Kai decided to speak to the man’s family directly.

“As it turned out, the mother [of the man] was very understanding,” says Kai. “She had lost her husband when she was young, so she herself had turned to this new religion. Her son had automatically become a follower as well, but the mother said that he was free to leave. And so he did.”

Since its establishment in 1970, the Zenkoku Nakodo Rengokai has matched more than 70,000 couples. And although nationally, divorce is on the up-and-up — from 141,689 divorces in 1980 to 285,911 in 2001, according to Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry data — association-made marriages seem to solidly buck the trend. Though no overall figures are available, Kai reports with some pride that among the more than 300 couples she’s shepherded to matrimony, there’s only been one divorce.

“Most of the couples keep in touch with me even after they get married, but that’s not how I found out about that divorce,” says Kai. “The ex-husband rejoined our association and found his second wife through us, too!”